#ExpertTalk with Prof. Suresh Bhagavatula, Professor and Mentor in Entrepreneurship at IIM-B

Womenpreneursofindia.com interacted with Prof. Suresh Bhagavatula for our ‘#ExpertTalk’ segment. Professor Bhagavatula is a professor at Indian Institute of Management – Bangalore and a mentor in entrepreneurship. His research interests are in two partly overlapping domains – Entrepreneurship and Social Networks. His research work has been published in the Journal of Business Venturing (JBV), Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice (ETP), Strategic Entrepreneurship Journal (SEJ), and IIMB Management Review. He shares more about himself, entrepreneurship and his mentoring experiences by answering the questions from our founder Raaghavi Nithiyanadh.

Suresh Bhagavatula

Raaghavi Nithiyanandh: Could you please tell us about yourself, sir?

Prof Suresh Bhagavatula: I am Suresh. I am a faculty in IIM-B Entrepreneurship Area. I am here for 13 years now. Lots of my work has been around teaching Entrepreneurship. That’s what I do most of the time that’s actually involved with NSRCEL – the incubator on campus NS Raghavan Centre for Entrepreneurial Learning. So, this is where I have been involved in all these years to support and work with entrepreneurs.

RN: We know your area of expertise is Networking and you seem to mentor a lot of entrepreneurs. We have this question for you – how important is a professional network for entrepreneurs?

SB: It is extremely very important, given that much of what people come to know is through their networks itself. Because, we can’t be having eyes and ears everywhere. So, whatever happens outside in the world, it is our network that brings us. It is also our network that drops our names at places where we are not and that brings us some business or getting some legitimate or some services. Basically, from places where we are not.

There are basically four kinds of resources that come from networks – you get information, you get emotional support, third – you get referrals and fourth – you can leverage networks for strategic influence. And then, you also get the resources like Financial advice. 

RN: With covid, it has become hard for everyone of us to meet people in person. How do entrepreneurs build networks online – could you share something on this?

SB: Yes, it’s going to be difficult to meet new people given that we are now stuck and we really have no idea when we’re going to have a world which was what we had a few months ago. You can’t attend events, we can’t meet people. So therefore, one way is to get back and reach out to older ties. Because, many of us would have had friends in the past. And, we don’t know where they are. We have not been in touch and we don’t know what they do. while it may or may not have direct relevance to one’s business or profession, It’s good to make those connections. you’ll be surprised how many of them would be in interesting positions, for you to gain new knowledge for them knowing about you. So since we are going to be likely to be locked for a few months. it would be good to talk to a lot of old people and wherever possible make some connections online. We right now are only using webinars which we want to connect. Maybe we’ll start to have events as well as some kind of online unconference to connect with people to talk about things that are of interest to them.

RN: You have experience in mentoring women entrepreneurs, What would you say about today’s trend in women entrepreneurship? Are more women stepping into entrepreneurship these days?

SB: Surprisingly, we have enough and more women entrepreneurs. What we don’t have is an equal opportunity to scale, the mentoring support, the financial support, the advisory support. So all of those things are a bit limiting, but we have started to see successful women entrepreneurs. So therefore they could be role models. And then there are institutes like IIMs and other entities Goldman sachs, DST – all of them have now. Identified that we need to nurture women entrepreneurs. Basically, one is  to get women to start but at the core of women starting the Venture is solving women’s problems. Because, a lot of women have problems which the market may not be addressing right now. Because the market is too male dominated, It is filled with problems which they think the world requires. But, there could be lots of problems which women are having which are not being addressed. And we see that in our women startup program. A lot of them are coming up with extremely large problems, scalable ventures doing technology. But The flavor of the idea is going to be different because they seem to be addressing the problem that women are having. 

RN: Do you think this can be solved? The Problems faced by women and that not being addressed?

SB: We can only improve the probability of this being solved. If you have more people addressing, more people taking entrepreneurship as a career, the probabilistic outcome of it being solved is very high. It’s just a matter of more people taking shots at it.

RN: Could you share with us about an interesting mentoring experience or an unforgettable women entrepreneur story?

SB: I remember this woman entrepreneur who is running a very large tea venture. She was part of our 10000 women  program which is supported by Goldman sachs. At the end of the program hers was one of the top three in terms of vision on effectively evaluating the business growth plans. Not only was she doing very well but she also managed to have a very high quality growth plan. Then she came and told me she never went to college and she just finished her 12th and then got married. She never had an opportunity to complete her education and then had kids and as they grew up she started a venture which is doing very well, but she has never had a possibility to have a degree. Because she was so happy that you’re getting this certificate from us. And that she is amongst the top who had finished that particular cohort. So, it was quite touching that It meant a lot to her that she could go back and tell people that she had a degree. She is very successful and she is also helping hundreds of others, having a nice house, successful and extremely confident. She gave importance to what we taught her in the class. So, that was extremely touching. 

RN: As a mentor in entrepreneurship, what do you see as a common mistake that entrepreneurs make?

SB: Yes. When you are interacting with a mentor, It’s important to understand the underlying logic of their suggestions. They might ask you to be A or B. But, whether you support that argument or do not support that argument, you take little bit of time to understand the underlying logic. If the logic appeals to you, then see whether that suggestion is what you would like to take up. Second is that these are not consultants. Most startups come to mentors and say, I have this problem and solve it for me. I guess startups will have to do their work before coming to a mentor. And, a mentor is  not a consultant to get the job done for you. He or she is here to listen to you and give some inputs based on their experience and their wisdom and use that to reflect on the questions that you are asking and perhaps they may have connections that they may open you to. But, when I see entrepreneurs coming and talking to mentors, They always are like I have a problem and how do I solve this?

So, have a slightly larger perspective when you’re going to see a mentor – Let them ask questions. Let them tell you that this may work or may not work. We don’t want to take the negative comments. But, we should consider negative comments because again, they have their perspective and they may be wrong but use that as an opportunity to try and inform them why their perspective is not right or you look at the logic and stand corrected.

So the mistake one is to go and look at them as consultants and mistake two is taking the positives and not the negatives and  third is saying that the mentor is not from my industry. It doesn’t matter whether the mentor is from your industry or not. 

Take the opportunity to tell them what it is that you are doing and get them to be excited about what it is that you’re doing. If you are excited and if you start to see the world in a particular manner and you are really analyzing the world well,  I’m sure a lot of mentors will feel happy about it. The reason why they are in this is not because It’s going to bring them great glorious pictures, they love interacting with young people. They love giving inputs, they respect the fact that youngsters are taking up this very difficult task of starting and running a venture. So, when somebody comes and says negative things it’s about your venture. It is about a process, it is not about you! So, we need to separate ourselves from the picture and that will help us when we are interacting with others. 

RN: In this tough phase, how can businesses sustain for a long term? Do you have any advice?

SB: At the end of the day, it is a matter of how much cash we have, how much stamina we have. If you are running and if you are tired it means you need rest. So it doesn’t matter if you’d like to stop your Ventures and do something else and it is okay, If you say that I will take a pause and start again. It’s also okay to say that, I will bring down my operations to a much more manageable level, which means letting go of some people,  its hard luck but it is unplanned and that is also fine. So, shutting down your venture and taking up a job is allowed. Taking a pause bringing down the operation to a level that is manageable is allowed. Don’t take it too hard on yourself! It is a marathon, we just need to live to come back to fight another day. This is going to be temporary for say a  few months. Or maybe it’ll be a new normal. Maybe we’ll have to change some of our practices. Maybe we will get better at testing and therefore better at isolating people and packing the virus then having the antivirus. What if we don’t? We have to learn to live with it and we are not going to be in lockdown forever. So, also when it starts getting better in whatever world with whatever rules we are going to be in, you could restart, redo or else you can even look at it to pivot. 

RN: Finally, We are an online community for Indian women entrepreneurs. What is your advice for us?

SB: Ya, I guess what we certainly need is all of us helping each other. If we survive, we survive as a community , we will have to help one another. You may have to use barter saying, I can do this for you and you can do something else in return. We need to create a more reciprocal Network where people are helping one another and if you could leverage this network to get people together online, ask if anyone has any request and see if others could help on that request. Then you’re creating an online community and that’s how we could perhaps survive or improve a probability of survival because you’re all helping one another with respect to time, experience, money or referrals. There’s a lot that we can do. so leverage the network, leverage each other’s capability. We leverage each other’s slack attention and then help one another because we still need to survive and solve issues after the covid.

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